Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Strengthening Our Safety Net: How the FY21 Budget Should Protect Struggling District Residents

In our last post, we discussed the importance of enacting a Fiscal Year (FY) 21 budget that addresses longstanding vulnerabilities that continue to put District residents from marginalized communities at risk. Essential to achieving that goal is to close gaps in our social safety net programs and ensure that assistance continues to be available to those who may need more time to recover financially from this crisis.

Safety Net Programs Must Recognize that the Recovery Will Not Take Place All at Once

While the Mayor and her regional counterparts are currently working to figure out a plan for re-opening the District and the regional economy, it is safe to assume that such a re-opening will not occur all at once. And even once the re-opening begins, there will likely be an extended period of time before we return to normalcy. For those residents who are not able to return to work as soon as the immediate crisis ends, safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), TANF, and unemployment insurance represent a lifeline for residents who will be struggling to feed, house and clothe themselves and their families.

During the emergency, the Bowser Administration has taken important steps to reduce barriers to accessing SNAP and TANF, and to maximize the assistance that families receive. These efforts have included the launch of an on-line application for public benefits and implementing temporary increases to SNAP benefits for households receiving less than the maximum benefit amount. The Administration also temporarily suspended re-certification requirements in these programs to prevent families up for renewal from losing benefits. Meanwhile, the Council took several steps to expand the availability of unemployment assistances (building on federal expansions) – changes that came just as need for these benefits rose substantially.

We applaud the Administration and the Council for the many steps they have taken during this public health crisis to shore up the safety net. However, it is important that once the public health emergency ends, measures to help District residents who are struggling are not immediately rolled back. With regard to SNAP and TANF, many households will still have pronounced needs for food and cash assistance as they attempt to find work. And a policy requiring everyone whose benefit renewals were suspended to immediately re-certify would likely be overwhelming for the government and deeply disruptive for families. Meanwhile, high levels of demand of unemployment benefits will mean that the Department of Employment Services (DOES) will need to continue to build its capacity to process applications and respond to questions from the community, while also helping District residents to prepare for and find new jobs.

We urge the Mayor to ensure that her budget maintains higher levels of safety net assistance and extends assistance for a period of time after the public health emergency is lifted. In order to effectuate this goal, the Mayor will also need to ensure that the agencies that administer these programs (DOES and the Department of Human Services) are sufficiently resourced to respond to higher levels of need for the foreseeable future. Hiring freezes and layoffs for the government employees who staff these programs will likely result in fewer needy District residents’ being able to access these safety net benefits.

The Budget Must Protect Health Care for Marginalized Communities and Lessen Health Disparities

As COVID-19 has spread across the country, it has highlighted a key truth: that it is difficult to navigate a public health crisis when people must overcome disparities in access to health care, including access to health insurance. Fortifying our communities against the continuing emergency – as well as future ones – requires us to close gaps in our health care system that leave people without regular and affordable access to health care.

The District has been a national leader in demonstrating its commitment to almost universal eligibility for health insurance for low- and moderate-income families. By and large, the District has maintained these high rates of health coverage, and a number of policymakers have focused on reducing health disparities across communities and racial groups. However, a number of gaps still remain.

One that we have highlighted for a number of years is a District policy that makes it incredibly difficult for low-income members of our immigrant communities who receive health coverage through the District’s Health Care Alliance program to maintain their health coverage. Prior to the public health emergency, the District Government required District residents covered by the Alliance to renew their coverage every six months, in person with the Department of Human Services (DHS), leading people to line up outside DHS service centers as early as 3 AM in lines that can be as long as 100 people to avoid losing access to health care. Many Alliance enrollees simply lost coverage because they could not navigate the renewal process.

Wisely, one of the first things that that Bowser Administration did after declaring a public health emergency was to suspend the Alliance’s in-person application and renewal requirements and extend the certification periods for enrollees who were due to renew in March through May. This action prevented what would have been a dangerous set of conditions: dozens of people gathering in front of government buildings to line up for health coverage renewals and potentially losing that coverage during a pandemic where access to health care is paramount.

We urge the Mayor to fund already-passed legislation that would permanently repeal the in-person renewal requirement and switch the Alliance’s renewal schedule to once a year (similar to Medicaid and other safety net programs). Making these changes permanent would end the unacceptable practice of singling out a program that serves low-income immigrants for more onerous renewal requirements, and move the District in the direction of more equal access to healthcare for all of its residents, regardless of immigration status. It would also recognize the reality that even when restrictions are lifted, it will still be a long time before it is wise to have large numbers of people congregating outside of service centers (or in service center lobbies) to apply and recertify for their health insurance benefits in person.

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